The pandemic, work, and wages

by Emrys Westacott

Numerous reports have been compiled and articles written about the way that the covid pandemic has affected, or will affect, work: the way people do it, and their attitude towards it. But although certain general trends can be identified–e.g. the percentage of meetings held online rather than face-to-face has, naturally enough increased–people’s attitudes towards work and the workplace haven’t been affected in a uniform way.

Many of those who have been able to work more from home relish the advantages of doing so. They avoid time-consuming and often stressful commutes; they are able to integrate the business of ordinary living–going to the dentist, picking up a prescription, working when the kids are off school, etc.–with getting their work done. Hours can be more flexible, and the same goes for the dress code.

For others, though, working from home all the time has many drawbacks. Commuting may have a bad reputation, but for a surprising number of people it can be positively enjoyable. A Canadian study found that where the commute take less than 30 minutes more than 50% of respondents said that they enjoy their commute. And among people who cycle to work, almost a fifth said that the commute was the best part of their day.[1]

The flexibility and freedom that working from home allows is undeniably a plus. But for some, the stricter routine provided by a requirement to show up at the workplace by a certain time brings order to the day and to the use of one’s time.

Most of all, though, physical workplaces serve an important social function. Just as it is good for our physical and mental health to to get outside every day and to be in regular touch with the natural world, so it is beneficial for most of us to meet and interact with other people regularly. The relationships in question may not be the most important ones in our lives: those with our fellow workers often are not. The conversations we have don’t have to be especially intimate or stimulating. But they can still be meaningful: occasions for sorting out a problem, cracking a joke, complaining about something or someone, giving or taking advice, offering or receiving a compliment. Read more »

Why aren’t people paid according to their social contribution?

by Emrys Westacott

What should we do with our leisure? In his Politics, Aristotle identifies this as a fundamental philosophical question. Leisure, here, means freedom from necessary labor. If we have to spend much of our time working, or recuperating in order to work more, the question hardly arises. But if we are free from the yoke of necessity, how we answer the question will say much about our conception of the good life for a human being.

It is to be hoped that the question will one day become the primary question confronting humanity. This hope rests on the prospect of a world in which technological progress has advanced to such a degree that no one needs to work more than a few hours per week in order to enjoy a reasonably comfortable and secure existence. Before the industrial revolution such an idea was a mere fantasy; but given the rate of technological progress over the past two hundred years–and particularly in light of the recent digital revolution and the advent of what has been called “the second machine age”–the prospect of a much more leisurely life for those who want it is at least conceivable.

The fifteen-hour work week envisaged by John Maynard Keynes in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930) is hardly just around the corner, though. One problem, of course, is that there are some kinds of work that are not easily automated. Consider home care for the disabled, sick, and elderly. Machines are capable of cognitive tasks far beyond the ability of humans, yet many of the basic manual tasks caregivers perform are still very difficult for robots to replicate. Beyond that, though, caregivers also provide human contact and companionship. For machines to offer an adequate substitute for this takes us well into the realm of science fiction (which is not say into the realm of impossibility).

The deeper problem, though, is political rather than technological. Read more »

Who’s ashamed of the work they do?

by Emrys Westacott

An old joke that is regularly rehashed goes something like this. A schoolteacher is asking a class of ten-year-olds what their parents do for a living. The children describe the work their mothers and fathers do as mail carriers, firefighters, librarians, electricians, cabinet makers, and so on, until it is little Sammy’s turn.

“So what does your dad do, Sammy?” asks the teacher.

“Er….he works as a male stripper at a BDSM sex joint.”

Teacher, flustered: “Oh! Really Sammy? He doesn’t strike me as the type….Is that really true?”

Sammy: “No, not really. The truth is he works for [Donald Trump] but I was too ashamed to say.”

Obviously, “Donald Trump” here is a placeholder for any political figure who one wishes to insult. But the joke raises an interesting question. What kind of work , if any, is shameful? And it also suggests a way of posing the question: viz. what kind of work might a child be ashamed to admit that their parents performed?  This is an interesting dinner table conversation topic.

Whether or not a certain line of work is shameful or honorable is, of course, culturally relative, varying greatly between places and over time. Farmers, soldiers, actors, dentists, prostitutes, pirates and priests have all been respected or despised in some society or other. Moneylending at interest was once a despised practice, held by Christian authorities to be sinful; but eventually the modern banker became an icon of boring respectability. Read more »

Where work came from and where it is going

by Emrys Westacott

If, for a long time now, you’ve been getting up early in the morning, setting off to school or your workplace, getting there at the required time, spending the day performing your assigned tasks (with a few scheduled breaks), going home at the pre-ordained time, spending a few hours doing other things before bedtime, then getting up the next morning to go through the same routine, and doing this most days of the week, most weeks of the year, most years of your life, then the working life in its modern form is likely to seem quite natural. But a little knowledge of history or anthropology suffices to prove that it ain’t necessarily so.

Work, and the way it fits into one’s life, can be and often has been, less rigid and routinized than is common today. In modernized societies, work is organized around the clock, and most jobs are shoehorned into the same eight-hour schedule. In the past, and in some cultures still today, other factors–the seasons, the weather, tradition, the availability of light, the availability of labor–determine which tasks are done when.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to see the basic overarching pattern–a tripartite division of the day into work, leisure, and sleep–as having deep evolutionary roots. After all, the daily routine of primates like chimpanzees exhibits a similar pattern. Work for them consists of foraging, hunting, and building nests for sleeping. Leisure activities consist of playing, grooming, and other forms of socializing, including sex. They typically sleep rather more than us; but the structure of their days roughly maps onto that of most humans. The major difference between us and our closest relatives in the animal kingdom lies not so much in how we divide up our day as in the variety and complexity of our work and leisure activities. Read more »

Work and time

by Emrys Westacott

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a great of suffering and has disrupted millions of lives. Few people welcome this kind of disruption; but as many have already observed, it can be the occasion for reflection, particularly on aspects of our lives that are called into question, appear in a new light, or that we were taking for granted but whose absence now makes us realize were very precious. For many people, work, which is so central to their lives, is one of the things that has been especially disrupted. The pandemic has affected how they do their job, how they experience it, or whether they even still have a job at all. For those who are working from home rather than commuting to a workplace shared with co-workers, the new situation is likely to bring a new awareness of the relation between work and time. So let us reflect on this.

In ‘The Superannuated Man,’ Charles Lamb writes,

that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s times, not his.

This is a basic and obvious reason that many people resent having to go to work at all. Work takes up time, and time, as many sages have observed, is supremely valuable, irreplaceable, priceless. It is precious because we each know that we are granted only a limited amount of it.

Time is, in the words of Ben Franklin, “the stuff life is made of.” So insofar as work consumes your time, it consumes your life. If your work is what you really want to do, this is not a problem. But if much of the time when you are working–whether you are selling your services to someone else for an agreed number of hours or drudging away at home–you would really prefer to be doing something else, then your working hours represent an enormous sacrifice. You are using up your supply of a decidedly finite, non-renewable resource. Read more »

Why aren’t we working less?

by Emrys Westacott

Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the continuous increase in productivity characteristic of industrial capitalism would lead within a century to much more leisure for everyone, with the typical working week being reduced to about fifteen hours. UnknownThis has obviously not come about. To be sure, in virtually all relatively prosperous countries the average number of hours worked annually has fallen over the last few decades. Between 1950 and 2010, in the US, for instance, this number dropped from 1,908 to 1,695, in Canada from 2,079 to 1,711, and in Denmark from 2,144 to 1,523. Even in Japan, famed for its workaholism, the average number of hours worked per year went from a high of 2,224 in 1961 to 1,706 in 2011.[1] But even the lackadaisical Danes are still working twice as hard as Keynes predicted.

Given the increases in productivity and prosperity in the industrialized world, one could have reasonably hoped for more. People in the UK are now four times better off than they were in 1930, but they work only twenty percent less, and that is fairly typical of other advanced economies. The rich, who used to relish their idleness, now boast about how hard they work, while for many of the poor unemployment is a persistent curse.

Moreover, according to economist Staffan Linder, economic growth is typically accompanied by a sense that we have less time available for the things we wish to do. This feeling is not mistaken, but the lack of time is in large part due to the fact that members of affluent societies will opt for more money over more leisure if given the choice. They then start to carry the mentality and values of workplace productivity into every part of their lives, resulting in what Linder calls the "harried leisure class."[2]

So why was Keynes wrong? According to Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much Is Enough? his mistake was to underestimate the difficulty of reining in the forces unleashed by capitalism, particularly people's desire for ever increasing wealth and the things it can buy. Our natural concern for improved relative status, hardwired into us by evolution, is inflamed by the capitalist system, complete with incessant advertising and free market ideology, so that we always want more than we have and more than we really need.[3]

Read more »

The conflict between competition and leisure

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_590 Apr. 14 11.15In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn't look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven't we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes' mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can't be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys' explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn't entirely wrong, but I don't think it's the whole story or even the most important part. It's no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they'd like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can't for a simple reason: their boss won't let them.

But there's also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

Read more »